Designing The Museum of Modern Love

A post by ABDA member Sandy Cull

Taking home both the Literary Fiction and Cover of the Year categories at the 2017 Australian Book Design Awards, designer Sandy Cull shares the story behind her design.

The Museum of Modern Love coverIn his review of the The Museum of Modern Love for The Australian, Dominic Smith says, ‘From its conception to its last page, the book challenges our perceptions of where life ends and art begins, (if they were ever separate to begin with).’

Of all the books I read in the last year, The Museum of Modern Love has been extraordinary for its reach into my daily life. I have recommended it to everyone who asks for reading suggestions and I have bought several copies to give away. This book has inspired so many conversations about art and life and reading, and about how we listen to and connect with one another. It has been a highlight full stop, not just as its lucky designer, but as a reader. At the end of June, I booked myself into an Avenue Bookstore event featuring Heather Rose in conversation with Tim Byrne, because I am perpetually in awe a writers’ process and, as an avid fan, I wanted to have my copy signed by the author.

The Brief

Back in early April 2016, the brief came from a publisher for whom I love to work. The briefing is always organised and deeply considered and has everything I need: ample time, dates, synopsis, target market, personal thoughts and references. In this case there was a suggestion towards, ‘a typographical cover, or something photographic…that represents the gaze of the artist and communicates energy’. On paper, the brief seemed super complex, but as explained by the publisher, ‘the reality of this novel is exactly the opposite…literary and beautiful but accessible, and the story is told in such a way that the reader becomes obsessed with Marina’s art as well as the unfolding human story’. This was exactly my reading experience.

Central to this novel about love and grief, is ‘The Artist is Present’, an actual art installation that took place in 2010, in the light-filled atrium of MOMA, by the doyen of performance art, Marina Abramović. The characters in the novel are either participating within the lines of a white square marked on the floor, or looking on from its edge, and their lives are deeply and differently effected by the performance.

Round one, ding, ding

I did extensive research into this artist, with whom I’d become a little obsessed. Within my notes I’d jotted down ‘waterfalls in sunlight, within a square of luminescence, light’, and my main quest was to try to communicate the epiphanic moment experienced by Marina’s participants, and Heather’s characters.

Whilst designing the first concepts, I had playing in the background, the full Flickr feed showing the faces of the thousands of people who’d participated during the 75-day duration of the installation. Tears of sheer joy and deep despair and everything in between, faded in and out as my screensaver. I was envisaging a white cover; somehow luminous, that typographically or illustratively showed this ‘connection’ between people.

Sandy Cull journal 1

The Artist is Present feed

Screen grab from ‘The Artist is Present’ Flickr feed. Photographs by Marco Anelli/Marina Abramović.

Though it has happened a few times, it’s incredibly rare to for me to arrive at the final cover in the first round. I’ve been known to stay in the ring for thirteen rounds, before I’ve either limped across the finish line, or managed a defeated flick of the white flag.

Modern Love round one covers

I sent about six concepts in this first round. It was felt that these roughs were ‘not accessible enough to the average book reader, too arty, and could look ‘difficult’.

‘Wow!’ factor please

The white square had, from the beginning, signalled itself as emblematic and nearly all of my concepts included it. But I briefly attempted a change of tack. It’s not always easy to forego something you’ve been wedded to, but I felt compelled to change direction, to explore faces, eyes and to place the cover steadfastly in NYC. I experimented with the MOMA logo typography, and Milton Glaser’s ‘I ❤️ NY’. I also revamped a concept I’d done for another book that had stumbled at an early hurdle in its approval process. I was relieved to hear fellow designers discuss this practice at the talk on contemporary book design last week at the State Library of Victoria. It’s just part of an on-going creative process, a continuum of observing and juxtaposing. For writers, a paragraph or a character that doesn’t make it into one story, might appear in another. For a painter, a canvas that doesn’t make it into one body of work may pop-up, re-worked, re-imagined elsewhere.

Modern Love round two covers

The publisher felt these second concepts lacked the ‘wow!’ factor. Publishers invariably push me to be a better designer. They can sometimes precipitate the opposite, but generally, I really need and deeply respect their input.


Skewed type started to appear, hinting of some back and forth movement. And by revisiting my early notebook sketches, I was inspired to transform the white square into a cube. Then, applying the colours of Marina’s three dresses, I chanced upon the slightly dazzling interplay of light between its three-dimensional planes, echoing that of the gaze between Marina and her fellow participants. There’s a moment when you know you’ve arrived (and by definition you know when you haven’t). And you cross your fingers that the publisher, the agent and the author think so too. As an afterthought, I also sent through the white version which I quietly hope might yet find its way onto another edition.

Modern Love concepts

Modern Love final cover

Just over 6 weeks after receiving the manuscript, I receive an email letting me know that the author and agent love the cover. Phew! Zoom forward to a special evening in mid-April, literally one year to the day since sending those first concepts, Heather Rose was making her beautiful acceptance speech at the Stella Awards.

Heather and Kenny

Back to the Avenue event, on June 28, I sat next to a chap who held an open copy of the book on his lap. Before proceedings began, I stole several clandestine, sideways glances, to ascertain that the cover had been completely coloured in – red on red, gold on gold, blue on blue, remaining true to the typography and the complex spine. Intrigued, I eventually asked for a closer look and discovered that this was a ceramic sculpture of the book, with the cover set permanently open.

Kenny Pittock is a Melbourne-based artist and he was there to ask Heather Rose to sign the accurately rendered title page. We chatted more in the signing queue and exchanged contact details.

Author Heather Rose and artist Kenny Pittock

Author Heather Rose and artist Kenny Pittock

I followed up with Kenny a few days later to ask why he chose to sculpt The Museum of Modern Love. Kenny has made lots of book sculptures, including one by Marina Abramović and he met Marina at that signing in 2015 when she was in Australia. When he read and really liked The Museum of Modern Love he thought it would be great to have one sit beside the Marina sculpture in his studio, ‘…and I just really liked the cover and the spine of the book and I wanted to have a go at painting it…For me making a sculpture of someone’s book is often a way of showing someone I really like what they do.’

Kenny also takes commissions. He’s currently involved in several group shows in Sydney (too many to mention here), and is part of a group show at the State Library of Victoria from August till November. Check him out.

Where does life end and art begin, indeed! The Museum of Modern Love took Heather Rose eleven years to write and it’s so encouraging and affirming to witness her success. That I was able to read it in manuscript form, to be introduced to the Marina Abramović phenomenon and obsess about it whilst designing, and then to continue to discuss the power and wonder of the story with anyone who asks…jeepers, how lucky am I, are we, as book designers, to get a seat on the ride?

Modern Love signed title page